Mary Slusser remembers the first time she ever laid eyes on the CP Holiday Train. Her husband, George Slusser and his best friend Tom Onan, both CP locomotive engineers at the time, encouraged her to watch the train as it rolled into St. Paul depot in 2002. Taken aback by the beautifully lit train and inspired by its objective to help collect food for food shelves, she knew she had to get the train to make a stop in her town of Cottage Grove, Minn.
After working with her local government officials and submitting a formal request, Slusser received the callback she had been hoping for but not expecting – the Holiday Train was making a stop in Cottage Grove the following year, 2003.
“We were beyond excited,” said Slusser. “We quickly began organizing and developing food drives and fundraisers between our communities which consists of Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport and Grey Cloud Island.
The Friends in Need Food Shelf is located in St. Paul Park – all of these cities are connected by land, but also by the gift of giving and sharing.”
Since 2003, Slusser has chaired the Holiday Train Committee in Cottage Grove every year, determined to make their stop one of the program’s most successful.
“We had a goal,” said Slusser. “We wanted to hit $1,000,000 in donations.”
With that goal in mind, each year the committee organizes various school, church and community fundraisers to help raise both money and food donations for the Friends in Need Food Shelf. Their efforts culminate annually on a cold December night when they welcome the CP Holiday Train.
“Last year after 15 years, we reached our goal,” said Slusser. “Seeing Santa wave goodbye from the back of the train as it pulled away from our stop made me feel so thankful for the Holiday Train and for the support and joy it gives our community. It truly does make a difference!”
“Seeing Santa wave goodbye from the back of the train as it pulled away from our stop made me feel so thankful for the Holiday Train and for the support and joy it gives our community. It truly does make a difference!” – Mary Slusser
Michelle Rageth, Director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf, echoes Slusser’s sentiments about the program adding that the Holiday Train is the most important fundraiser for Friends in Need and raises a significant amount of their yearly operating budget.
“We are so grateful for CP and this generous community,” said Rageth. “We would not meet demand if not for this program and the way this community rallies behind it.”
There are stories like Slusser’s from communities all across our network. Each have come to depend on the support the Holiday Train encourages each year to help feed some of their community’s most vulnerable.
These stories remind Kevin Hyrsak, CP’s Senior Manager Heritage Operations how special the program is and the value it brings to communities and to CP. Hyrsak is responsible for overseeing the Holiday Train program. From the operating schedule, musical guests, staffing to lights, Hyrsak ensures that the program runs smoothly each year.
“It’s amazing to see how the program has grown,” said Hyrsak. “When I first became involved with the program in 2005, crowds of 5,000 were considered huge. Now we have multiple locations with crowds pushing the 10 to 15 thousand mark – it’s incredible.”
Crowd sizes and, most significantly, donation numbers have increased astronomically, consistently reaching almost $1 million in donations per year.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see that level of engagement from the communities,” said Hyrsak. “We love seeing how communities develop their own initiatives and traditions around our Holiday Train event.” Communities like Parry Sound, Ont. draws crowds of about 300 to support the local food bank, Harvest Share.
“The event has built over the years,” said Parry Sound Mayor, Jamie McGarvey.
“CP’s support for the food bank has been greatly appreciated and the generosity of the Parry Sound community has been absolutely amazing.”
What does the crowd at Parry Sound look forward to most? The sight of our festive train as it stops on the trestle of the Seguin River for an impressive photo op.
“It’s truly a spectacular sight that many people look forward to each year,” said McGarvey.
Making the magic happen
A lot has to happen before the Holiday Train makes its way to the Parry Sound trestle bridge. Like Santa’s elves who work all year round to ensure Christmas Eve goes off without a hitch, the Holiday Train team does the same.
“We take Christmas Day off and then it’s back to work on next year’s program,” said Hyrsak.
“After 13 years with the program, it’s the same feeling of pride every time we roll into a small town or urban centre. Seeing the crowds smiling and waving at the train. Talking to the food bank reps who get emotional because they wouldn’t be able to stock their shelves and feed their communities without our support. It’s a feeling that never gets old.” – Kevin Hyrsak, Senior Manager Heritage Operations
Beginning mid-January, Hyrsak and his team start looking into performers and new ways to improve the train. Lights are usually ordered at this time and in February new lighting themes and concepts begin to develop.
“We challenge ourselves to find new and innovative ways to draw people out to our events,” said Hyrsak. “The hope is that we’ve developed a tradition with families so they bring their kids out year after year and we want to keep it a fun and engaging experience for them.”
When the weather warms, repair season begins. Annual maintenance is performed throughout the spring and summer including new light mural decorations for the boxcars. Other program stakeholders are brought in beginning in July. By this time, the schedule is nearly complete, communications plans are built and all the behind-the-scenes details and logistics are sewn up. Then it’s a countdown until the program’s official launch in October.
“Once we begin executing the program there are quite literally hundreds of people in our organization ensuring its success,” said Hyrsak. “People in Operations, Engineering, Mechanical, Interline, the Operations Centre, CP Police, Communications and Media Relations, the list goes on. It’s one of those things that gets folks motivated and excited to be a part of its success.”
With all of its moving parts and the countless hours of work put into its execution, nothing beats the feeling when the Holiday Train lights go on and the stage comes down in front of an excited crowd filled with eager faces young and old.
“It’s a bit of a beast but worth all the effort,” said Hyrsak. “For me personally, after 13 years with the program, it’s the same feeling of pride every time we roll into a small town or urban centre. Seeing the crowds smiling and waving at the train. Talking to the food bank reps who get emotional because they wouldn’t be able to stock their shelves and feed their communities without our support. It’s a feeling that never gets old.”
It doesn’t get old for the Hamilton Food Share either. Hamilton has been a Holiday Train stop since the program’s inception in 1999. The program continues to have a lasting impact on the community.
“We are deeply grateful to have the support of CP over the years,” said Celeste Taylor, Resource Development Manager for Hamilton Food Share. “The generosity and commitment is truly outstanding! The City of Hamilton, media supporters, and dozens of volunteers all come together to kick off the holiday season with great generosity for families in need in our community. It’s also a free event that is accessible to low-income families.”
“We are deeply grateful to have the support of CP over the years. The generosity and commitment is truly outstanding!” – Celeste Taylor, Resource Development Manager for Hamilton Food Share
Hamilton Food Share estimates that over 150,000 pounds of food and $130,000 has been collected as a result of the Holiday Train visits.
“The program has been going so long that it predates computerized records,” said Taylor. “The food and cash donations are put to work right away to help stock local food banks in Hamilton. For every $1 donated, Hamilton Food Share is able to get $5 in food. There are 12,600 people accessing food banks in Hamilton each month, more than a third of whom are children.”
Taylor’s favourite Holiday Train moment is shaped by her personal mission to bring the magic and fun of the Holiday Train to everyone in Hamilton by introducing a disability-accessible viewing area right in front of the stage, something she accomplished last year.
“A member of the public told me how important this was for her and her child to be able to see the stage and have fun.” said Taylor. “As the mother of a disabled child, this meant the world to me.”
Ready for another year of making memories
The two trains set out on their journeys late November. One travels across our network in Canada, the other along our network in the U.S. This year, new stops were added and with them the opportunity to create new holiday traditions. First-time Holiday Train stops this year include: Carberry, Man.; Gleichen, Alta.; Milton, Ont.; Bensenville, Ill.; Ottumwa, Iowa; and Chillicothe and Kansas City, Mo.
“It’s always exciting to introduce new stops,” said Hyrsak. “We’ve never been to the most southern point of our network in Kansas City before so it will be a great experience to bring the train of lights to employees and communities along this stretch. The new locations are welcoming us with open arms and we are excited to put on a show for them.”
This year’s show does not disappoint. On the U.S.-bound train, Sam Roberts Band and JoJo Mason entertain crowds at stops in Quebec, New York and Ontario. The Trews will then hop on board with Willy Porter in Chicago to complete the trip through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota before arriving at their final destination in Weyburn, Sask.
On the Canadian train Kelly Prescott will join three time Juno award-winner Terri Clark and Sierra Noble to spread holiday cheer through Ontario,Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Calgary and Edmonton, Alta. Sam Roberts Band will then carry on through Alberta and British Columbia, joined by Kelly Prescott and Tracey Brown, to the final show of the tour in Port Coquitlam, B.C. on December 18.
Over the years we have had some amazing performers grace the stage of the Holiday Train. To celebrate 20 years of rocking the rails we are releasing 20 festive songs by artists that have toured on the train over the past 20 years. For 20 days beginning November 25, fans can visit the CP Holiday Train playlist on Spotify for a free song to stream.
With a curated soundtrack to get you into the holiday spirit, there has never been a better year to experience the magic of the CP Holiday Train. Why not start your own Holiday Train traditions by bringing a healthy donation to your local food bank and help us get a head start on the next 20 years of giving back.